The Arc of a Writing Career

Sherman Alexie reveals how success has, and hasn’t, changed his life.
  • Transcript


Question: How has it felt becoming a literary community “insider”?

Sherman Alexie: You young bastard, I’m doing okay. It is a strange dilemma because in some sense, you know, I was very native, very native identified, and I still am, but that’s almost become secondary. I’ve sort of joined the tribe of highly established literary writers. So, you know, I’m with the Jonathan Franzens of the world. You know, I know him a little bit, but that’s sort of my peer group now, rather than just sort of, you know, Indian world, literary world, I’m now in, you know, this sort of make-believe world of writers who supposedly hang out a lot, although none of us ever do. So I’m in a faux community of writers, highly successful, literary writers now.

Question: Has success changed your work?

Sherman Alexie: Oh, it’s all, I mean, I haven’t changed anything I’ve written based on all that stuff. So the perceptions of me may have changed, or my career, but I’m still writing the same stuff, it’s still pretty much about Spokane Indian males, you know, stumbling through life. So I think it’s because of the combination of skills I have, you know, I work in multi-genres, you know, I do stand-up comedy, I help make movies, I think all of that has contributed to it. I’m not just a novelist or not just a short story writer. So I think in this highly technological world with many diverse and diffuse influences, I think I’m able to hit a lot of aces.

Question: When you’re a writer, is doing anything besides writing selling out?

Sherman Alexie: Nobody who’s ever been poor would ever use the phrase “selling out.” You know, my influences in the multi-genre artists come from my Indian writing ancestors, the previous generation. When you’re talking James Welch, Simon Ortiz, Scott Momaday, Joy Harjo, Leslie Silko, Linda Hogan, Adrian C. Louis, all of these writers were multi-genre. They all wrote poetry and novels and short stories and non-fiction and dabbled in songwriting and filmmaking and documentary making. So my original influences were Native American, multi-genre artists.

Now, these days, the younger Native writers are not multi-genre, so it’s very interesting. I’m not sure what’s happening, why that has changed, but I grew up as a kid writer. Nobody ever told me I was supposed to be one thing, so just because I happened to become successful in a number of those genres, it wasn’t because I was pursuing them economically, it was because I saw the artistic possibilities in all of it. And I was taught those when I was a, you know, 19-year-old undergraduate.

Question: Why haven’t you joined academia?

Sherman Alexie: Yeah, I think I’m the least educated Indian writer out there. I’ve taught at the University of Washington, so, but I’m not a good teacher, so I think that probably disqualifies me. Yeah, I’m not in academia at all, in terms of a full-time career. I think it’s interesting, because I think, when you look at Native American literature, you’re going to find that it doesn’t really reflect the diversity of the ways in which the writers actually lived their lives. Nobody’s ever written, for instance, an academic farce, a Native American teacher at college farce, which is a time-honored and wonderful genre. You know, David Lodge made a whole career out of it, writing academic farces and, you know, every writer you can name has written it, but we haven’t done it. You know, where’s that novel about that Indian architect or that Indian lawyer. There’s a distinct lack of white-collar Native American literature, despite the fact that most of its most visible practitioners are white-collar themselves. So I think there’s an effort, somewhat of an insecurity to prove your Indian-ness by focusing almost entirely on a reservation-based identity.